Reading between enemy lines

BRIAN D. JOHNSON January 15 2007

Reading between enemy lines

BRIAN D. JOHNSON January 15 2007

A big Christmas for very tiny books

My haul this year was weirdly emaciated— but at least the kids were entertained



I’ve noticed an ever widening gap between the books I get sent in my capacity as a professional columnist and the books I get sent by my loved ones.

The books from publishers are getting bigger and bigger: from the press release, I was rather looking forward to The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader. But, when it landed in the mailbox, my heart sank, and so did my knees: it’s 996 pages. When I say “it landed in the mailbox,” I am, of course, speaking metaphorically. It doesn’t fit in the mailbox. You get one of those little cards and you go see the postmaster eager to know what groaning cornucopia of delights has proved too bounteous for your humble box only to be handed some 1,500-page first volume of the collected letters of Margaret Atwood.

By contrast, my haul under the Christmas tree was a big bunch of the world’s smallest books. I don’t mean “the world’s smallest books” as in Fodor’s Guide to the Best Bars in Riyadh or British Foreplay Techniques. But gifts you figure from the size and shape must be that Nana Mouskouri CD or a set of cufflinks in an attractive box, only to unwrap them and find an expensively produced hardback in some stylishly archaic font illustrated with woodcuts. But it’s only a hundred pages long. And it would fit in your mailbox. Indeed, it would fit under the card from the post office telling you it’s time you picked up the thousand-page Kingsley Amis biography because they put it out back and the delivery truck keeps mistaking it for the new loading dock.

Eventually, after piling up all my new tomes and amusing the kids for an hour or so by balancing the collection on the end of my nose, I began to wonder, “Hey, what’s the deal with these small books?” They seem to operate on the same principle as Beverly Hills women: you can never be too rich or too thin. Elegant, petite, beautifully tooled—the books, I mean, not the women. But also weirdly emaciated. Here’s one from my yuletide haul: Essential Militaria: Facts, Legends, and Curiosities About Warfare Through the Ages by Nicholas Hobbes. The author is a military historian. He could write some big ol’ doorstopper about the Crimea or the Hundred Years War, but instead he’s assembled a slender compendium of random lists of martial arcana—“Gays in the Military” (Achilles, Leonidas of Sparta, Alexander the Great, etc.) and “Drugs Given to Soldiers”:

1. VIKINGS ON MUSHROOMS: The Norse Berzerker warriors of the Middle Ages are thought to have eaten hallucinogenic fungi to induce battle rage.

2. GERMANS ON COKE: In 1883 Theodor Aschenbrandt administered cocaine to members of the Bavarian army. It was found that the drug enhanced their endurance on manoeuvres.

Etc. The trouble with “trivia” in the Trivial Pursuit era is that most of it quickly got way too trivial, too reductive, too obsessed with sixties pop and seventies TV to be little more than the umpteenth exploitation of boomer self-absorption: did Dick York predate Dick Sargent on Bewitched or vice versa? If you know what Bewitched is, you’ll be eagerly putting up your hand. But, if you don’t, you won’t. In contrast to the interminable popculture recycling, the ur-text of the new school of fascinating-fact book is Schott’s Original Miscellany by Ben Schott. Five years ago, he was a Cambridge graduate who designed, typeset and printed 50 copies as gifts for his pals. A year later, he’d sold half a million, and become a brand. He followed it with themed miscellanies, such as Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany, which, unlike Martha Stewart et al., explores the subject from both ends. Thus Mr. Schott includes the “Bristol Stool Form Chart,” which classifies human feces into seven different groups and was first published in The Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology as part of a paper on “Stool Form Scale as a Useful Guide to Intestinal Transit Time.”

I don’t see The Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology terribly often, but I was in Germany a few years ago and in a secondhand bookstore came across an ancient, scholarly, lavishly illustrated encyclopedia on the same subject which I dimly recall as The Bumper German Book of Stools (possibly not a literal translation of the title). That’s more than most of us not on the CBC board want to know about the subject. But Schott can-

nily foresaw that a little learning is a lucrative thing, and that in a sound-bite age, millions of people would like tens of facts about thousands of things. Or to quote, as he does, Arthur Balfour in one of his lesser-known Balfour declarations: “He has only half learned the art of reading who has not added to it the even more refined accomplishments of skipping and skimming.”

Schott designed his book to look like one of those standard authorities that’s been around forever—Wisden’s Cricketers’Almanack, etc. Although he does include new stuff (next to a list of Britain’s Astronomers Royal, you’ll find an explanation of chat-room acronyms: LMAO = “laughing my ass off”), Schott seems to have opened up a new seam of aspirational trivia, for readers who wouldn’t be seen dead with the usual boomer nostalgia or books of nerdy trainspotty blokey lists (Ten Essential Stones Albums).


By now there’s hardly a toilet—sorry, looin middle-class England that doesn’t have Schott’s collected works, and inevitably publishers keep cranking out various derivative cheap Schotts in the hope that one will stick.

But it’s a tricky balance. Another that turned up under the tree this year is The Man’s Book by Thomas Fink, “the authoritative guide to being a man in the 21st century.” The cover looks like a psychedelic supermarket bar code, but I think it’s meant to be some sort of groovy Carnaby Street Nehru jacket—i.e. it’s a book jacket in both senses. I assumed from the front that “Thomas Fink” was a pseudonym derived from the shirtmaker Thomas Pink, who gets an entry in the book: “Pink must be lauded for contributing to the revival of interest in English shirtmaking.” But in fact professor Fink is a real person, a professor of theoretical physics at the Curie

Institute in Paris and, even odder, raised in Texas. The book is a weird blend of very unTexan fogeyish snobbery and mathematical certainty. The section on tie-knotting obviously dwells on the Windsor knot, the halfWindsor, the four-in-hand and whatnot, but concedes that a tie can actually be tied 85 different ways and further explains:

The number of different tie knots K that can be tied with h moves or half turns is

K(Ji) = V3 (lh~2(-l) h~2)

Professor Fink produces an even more complex formula for determining where one should stand in a row of seven urinals to minimize the chances of a newcomer taking the adjoining position. This is mathematically sound, but I wonder if it quite hits the mark psychologically. He warms up with a hypothetical situation in which the entire row is empty and recommends taking one’s stand at either No. 1 or No. 7—“and every man knows this.” Does he? Isn’t there something a little furtive about skulking down at the end like that? Doesn’t the relaxed man about town saunter confidently to the central po-

sition—No. 4—unconcerned about which pissoir incoming traffic might opt for? In the old days, this had the additional advantage that half the patrons

would assume you were an agent provocateur from the vice squad and give you a wide berth anyway. A lot of water under the bridge since then.

I see I’ve only skimmed the surface of the new school of miscellanies. But, in the spirit of the age, I might compile a miscellany of miscellanies. Twenty-eight pages. $39-95. Can’t go wrong. One wonders, however, if this new genre isn’t prone to the literary equivalent of Chinese whispers. InEssentialMilitaria, Nicholas Hobbes opens up with a list of “Poor Reasons for War.” No. 6:

“The Pig War of 18 60 almost broke out on the U.S.-Canadian border, which a Canadian

pig kept crossing in order to eat American potatoes. When an American farmer shot the beast, a British warship was dispatched to San Juan resulting in a standoff with 60 U.S. soldiers.”

Kinda sorta. In fact, the pig was shot in 1859. And there was no U.S.-Canadian border. San Juan Island was claimed for both British Columbia and Washington Territory. And it was three British warships in a standoff with 461 Americans.

Oh, well. Close enough to impress the birds at cocktail parties. Especially if you’ve got a perfect No. 31 tie knot and you don’t have to keep dashing off because of a No. 7 stool form. M